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What Are the Ethical Considerations of Virtual Reality?

This piece is based on a talk Cortney be giving at Tech Open Air (TOA) Berlin on Thursday, July 13.

As with every new technology, virtual reality has already attracted its fair share of doomsayers, who fret that VR will serve to further isolate people and lead to a state of stasis, where we all just sit in headsets all day. These have a familiar ring because the same criticisms have been leveled against everything from the telephone to the television set to the smartphone, and after a while it becomes hard to take them seriously due to their banality.

With that being said, there are some serious conversations to be had about the ethical limits of virtual reality, and why it makes sense to discuss these early in the evolution of the medium.

VR has been heralded as an empathy machine, but it can also provoke strong feelings of fear as well. In many cases, this does nothing more than add a thrill — watching a horror experience in VR, when it is clearly classified as such, can provide entertaining chills in a whole new way but is ultimately a harmless form of entertainment.

But the same immersion can be used to create fear of other groups of people, and to set them apart even further. A travel example that takes a user to an unknown place, for instance, can easily be skewed to portray only negative behaviors from a group — and given how powerful the experiences are, it can really make an imprint.

The defense is usually that if someone finds a VR experience objectionable or offensive, they can simply remove the headset, just as they can turn off the TV or walk out of a movie theater. But what happens when you cannot remove the headset? Placed in the wrong hands, VR could be created as an instrument of torture — and one that doesn’t leave any marks. It’s one thing to threaten a captive with the fate of their family, but another entirely to create a fictionalized experience and show him or her exactly what might befall their loved one.

Beyond the use cases that could violate the Geneva Conventions, there are other and more subtle ways emotions can be manipulated in VR.

There are several experiences coming to the market where users can have conversations with virtual people, and some of these are meant to measure whether someone could fall in love in a VR experience. Technical limits keep this from happening right now, but that’s not to say in a few years it couldn’t be a possibility — and what happens when someone truly believes they are in a real relationship with an unreal (pun intended, nerds) person? You’re probably having flashbacks to 2013’s Her by now.

VR advocates and creators have a responsibility to make sure the technology adheres to a code of ethics, while also encouraging free speech and creativity. In cases where someone is forced to wear a headset, international rules about torture should apply. In cases where someone is being more subtly manipulated, those around them should step in and intervene. VR is the path forward and can offer much to the world — we need to make sure that it remains a force for positivity.